The year the Hong Kong flu swept across America killing scores of people and leaving others begging for death, I was a “Christmas Helper” assigned to the home goods department of a Macy’s in downtown Kansas City Missouri. If you’ve ever taken a seasonal job selling products you know nothing about then you’ll understand why I spent most of my time in the stock room. No one ever found anything in the stock room and I could sit in there forever wondering why anyone would want a tangerine colored crockpot.
The store was located not far from the abandoned stockyards in an area where few businesses still survived but I was just a teenager with few lines on my resume. And so I’d quickly and without thinking taken a minimum wage job an hour by bus from Greenwood Missouri where I “crashed” with a friend (Joellen) a few years old and much wiser than me.
Joellen’s husband had made the unfortunate decision to sign up for the National Guard in 1966. First, he was shipped from Reno Nevada to Missouri and then to Japan. She’d followed him to Missouri (they were newlyweds) and, thinking they’d be there for awhile, enrolled in graduate school. Now she was stuck in Greenwood, a town south of KC with a welcome sign that included the phrase Have You Been Saved?
After high school, my first attempt to voyage out into the world had ended in a Mennonite cornfield with one friend hospitalized, the other pregnant, and me with a fork stuck in my leg, “Come live with me,” she’d written,”and get your shit together.” She had more faith in me than I did.
We were known in Greenwood as “dem dam hippies” who lived in a three room shack with little insulation, leaky windows and a wall heater that barely kept the place warm. The car was stored in an attached lean-to but in order to keep the engine block from freezing, we had to run an extension cord out to a lamp underneath the hood. It didn’t always work. Every morning I drove with Jo to the campus of the University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC) then took a bus down to Macys.
Five days before Christmas my body began to ache. The bars, barbecue joints, and Victorian boarding houses along the route back to the campus were decorated for the season with blinking lights and Santa Clauses but in my worsening condition, they were as sinister as ghouls in a carnival funhouse. I remember seeing my reflection in the window on that dark, cold night. Instead of eighteen I looked eighty (or as my mother would say “death warmed over”).
I cried as I waited for Jo outside her class. All around were murals Thomas Hart Benton had painted in his lean and feverish years, scenes of farm life that felt so cold and lifeless I decided he must have hated his subjects. I tried to convince myself that a good night’s sleep was all I needed but deep down I knew it was the Hong Kong flu.
The next morning I was barely able to lift my head from the pillow. I managed to call Macys only to be fired but didn’t care. I was about to die so what did it matter. Some time during the next three days Jo stopped checking on me which meant she’d also been stricken. The phone rang and rang and rang until whoever was on the other end gave up. Finally I was able to stand for longer than a few minutes without swooning but, as so often happens when you think the worse has come and gone, you find out it was only a teaser for the main event.
Click here to read the conclusion The Ice Storm Cometh.